Skip to content

To Be or Not to Be a Social Media “Influencer”

When I started my Facebook page a decade ago, it was uncommon for physicians to be on social media. Later as I gained more followers and got more invitations to give presentations on social media and healthcare, I would sometimes be introduced or referred to as an “influencer.” And I would always cringe! I’ve just been asked to give a presentation on physicians and medical students as social media influencers, with a focus on the implications for public trust. It’s a good topic as well to discuss at the #HealthXPH tweet chat tonight 9 pm (Manila time) 4 March 2023.

What’s a social media influencer?

Influencers in social media are people who have built a reputation for their knowledge and expertise on a specific topic. They make regular posts about that topic on their preferred social media channels and generate large followings of enthusiastic, engaged people who pay close attention to their views.

Werner Geyser,

Phrased this way, the definition of social media “influencing” is something I can agree with. However, Geyser also says the following of social media “influencers”:

…these individuals are not merely marketing tools, but rather social relationship assets with which brands can collaborate to achieve their marketing objectives… Brands love social media influencers because they can create trends and encourage their followers to buy products they promote.

Werner Geyser,

Article 5.5 of the Code of Ethics of the Philippine Medical Association on media exposure clearly states, “Physicians shall not commercially endorse any medical or health product.” Article 9.2.4 also states, Physicians shall not participate in any marketing strategies including but not limited to special prescription pads, rebates, commissions or raffles.” The 2009 implementing rules and regulations of the PMA Code of Ethics further states:

A medical or health product is defined as any product used by health professionals to fulfill their mission of preventing, screening, diagnosing, treating and monitoring of patients and it encompasses products available to the general public for health purposes. Health products are classified into four categories, namely
a) chemical products;
b) physical products;
c) blood components and transplants;
d) hospitals and medical clinics;

Philippine Medical Association,

But what if the endorser is a medical student? Are medical students covered by this code? What if a physician is endorsing a product but it’s not medical or health-related? I’ve been on Twitter since 2010. I established a personal learning network on Twitter for professional development. I’ve had a Facebook page since 2012 where I provide endocrine-related information for the public. Though I have received offers for collaboration, I have never accepted these. And so I understand what Tricia Pendergast meant in this tweet –

I must confess that though I have an Instagram account, I rarely post on it. But Dr. Gaibrie Stephen has noted the rise of the “medical student influencer.”

Tags like “#medstudentlife, #residentphysician and #medblog” yield thousands of examples of medical students and residents leveraging their soon-to-be profession to market not only their “personal brand” in an effort to gain followers, but also products on behalf of companies that pay them upwards of $100 for each post. These accounts are well-curated with carefully arranged photos of scrubs, coffee, textbooks and anatomy models, and are geared toward the consumer who wants to experience the “glamorous” world of medicine.

Gaibrie Stephen,

Geyser further discusses the types of influencers: by follower numbers (mega, macro, micro, nano-influencers), content type (blogger, YouTuber, podcaster, social posts only), and by level of influence. There’s two types under level of influence: celebrity and key opinion leader. Physicians will likely fall under the latter type though Geyser lists the following specifically: journalists, academics, industry experts, and professional advisors. Given the infodemic and growing anti-science sentiment of the public, I continue to advocate for physicians to have social media presence. But perhaps we need to discuss, how should that look like exactly?

T1. Do you think physicians and medical students on social media should be hailed as “influencers”? How would you define a physician/medical student social media “influencer?”

T2. What would you consider as acceptable use of social media platforms by physicians and medical students? Is earning from such social media activity acceptable or ethical?

T3. How is public trust impacted by physician and medical student influencers endorsing products? Does it matter if the products are not medical or health-related?

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.